Cubs

How the Cubs match up against the Dodgers in the NLCS

How the Cubs match up against the Dodgers in the NLCS

Ben Zobrist used a 1910 model of a glove during the Cubs workout Thursday, "just for fun."

Think the Cubs are loose enough?

Zobrist and his teammates are feeling themselves right now, as well they should. 

Tuesday's NLDS-clinching Game 4 comeback in San Francisco ranks among the best in MLB posteason history and the team that finished the regular season with the best record in baseball is overflowing with confidence.

As the Los Angeles Dodgers pulled out all the stops to fend off the Washington Nationals in a high-stress Game 5 Thursday night, the Cubs only had to be concerned with what to eat for dinner ("I think we're gonna use UberEats," Joe Maddon said).

Before the Dodgers and Nationals squared off in the longest nine-inning game in postseason history, Maddon didn't need to deliver any John Wooden quotes about how the Cubs just needed to focus on playing their game. 

Been there, done that.

Beyond Clayton Kershaw, the Cubs hitters have very little experience going up against the rest of the Dodgers pitchers, but that wasn't enough to create any sense of panic in Maddon at the Cubs workout at Wrigley Field Thursday.

"It's the same way for us, although I do believe a pitcher who's pitching well should have an advantage over a team that has not seen him to that point, normally," Maddon said. "Kershaw, we've seen in the past and you know how good he is. [Rich] Hill, I've never seen in person yet, but I've seen him on TV. 

"Of course, it's something different. But I wouldn't worry about that. ... I honestly believe our guys will be equal to the challenge. I know they're gonna be ready. We're feeling pretty good about ourselves. Just continually work the moment and we'll be fine."

The Cubs are already in a good spot, getting three full days of rest before the National League Championship Series starts Saturday night. 

Plus, they get to reset their rotation and roll out their ace (Jon Lester) for Game 1 in hopes of setting the tone again. 

The Dodgers, meanwhile, tapped their closer (Kenley Jansen) for a career-high 51 pitches and both of their top two starters (Kershaw and Rich Hill) in the do-or-die Game 5 Thursday night.

Kershaw threw 110 pitches in Game 4 Tuesday, had a day off, then threw another seven pitches to get two outs Thursday night. Would the Dodgers push him again to start one of the games at Wrigley this weekend?

Hill dealt with blister issues the entire second half of the season and already started Game 5 Thursday on short rest after throwing 82 pitches on Sunday. He wasn't all that effective in either outing (combined 6.43 ERA, 1.86 WHIP).

But the Dodgers are far more than just three pitchers.

[SHOP: Gear up, Cubs fans!]

2016 SEASON SERIES

The Cubs went 4-3 against the Dodgers in the regular season, winning three of four at Wrigley in June before dropping a pair of one-run contests in a three-game set at Dodger Stadium in late August.

The Cubs finished the season with a +252 run differential, but that number was only +3 against the Dodgers in the seven games as the Cubs offense averaged only 2.7 runs per game against L.A. pitching.

LINEUP

The Dodgers lineup is so loaded with lefties, both Maddon and Cubs GM Jed Hoyer admitted rookie southpaw Rob Zastryzny could crack the 25-man NLCS roster.

Zastryzny has only 16 big-league innings under his belt and got lost in the shuffle a little bit down the stretch, appearing in only two games in the final four weeks of the regular season. But the results were all positive (1.13 ERA, 1.06 WHIP).

In the winner-take-all Game 5, the Dodgers started six lefties and a switch-hitter against Nationals ace Max Scherzer and then brought out another lefty (Andre Ethier) to pinch hit.

Beyond Lester, the Cubs also had three southpaws in their bullpen in the NLDS - Travis Wood, Mike Montgomery and closer Aroldis Chapman. Zastryzny would represent another weapon if the Cubs went that route.

Regardless of side, the Dodgers have a deep lineup with a nice blend of youth (Corey Seager, Joc Pederson) and battle-tested veterans (Chase Utley, Justin Turner, Adrian Gonzalez) plus role players like Josh Reddick, Howie Kendrick and the enigmatic Yasiel Puig.

Utley and catcher Carlos Ruiz won the World Series with the Philadelphia Phillies in 2008 and will help keep the clubhouse focused on the big picture.

ROTATION

Kershaw pulled a Madison Bumgarner by pitching in three of the five NLDS games, leaving his status in doubt. 

Is Game 1 out of the question? He only threw seven pitches Thursday night plus his warm-ups in the bullpen. Other than that, he had Wednesday and will have Friday off after Tuesday's 110-pitch start.

Can he go in Game 2 Sunday night? Or will the Dodgers play it safe and just wait to unleash him until next week in Los Angeles?

Those are the main questions around the Dodgers rotation, since the sun rises and sets with Kershaw, the best pitcher on the planet. 

Hill's blisters could still be a concern and he probably won't be a factor in the first two games at Wrigley.

Then there's 20-year-old phenom Julio Urias, who pitched twice against the Cubs in the regular season to a 1-1 record and 4.91 ERA. But Urias really turned a corner in August, going 4-0 with a 1.34 ERA in his final eight games (six starts).

Japanese rookie Kenta Maeda rounds out the rotation and only lasted three innings in his first postseason start against the Nationals, giving up four runs and taking the loss.

BULLPEN

After taking advantage of the Giants' shaky bullpen in the NLDS, the Cubs now draw a Dodgers bullpen that paced the majors with a 3.35 ERA in the regular season.

Jansen (47 SVs, 1.83 ERA, 0.67 WHIP, 13.6 K/9) and Joe Blanton (28 HLDs, 2.48 ERA, 1.01 WHIP) lead the way. Righties Pedro Baez, Josh Fields and Ross Stripling and lefty Luis Avilan present manager Dave Roberts with plenty of options for the middle innings.

Grant Dayton, a 28-year-old rookie, had a 2.05 ERA in the regular season, but had a rough NLDS (16.20 ERA, 4.20 WHIP).

KEY TO THE SERIES

The Cubs hit just .200 with a .597 OPS against the Giants in the NLDS and saw a stunning share of their offense come from the pitching staff. 

But now they draw a team that threw everything on the line just to get to the NLCS.

Kershaw's postseason struggles are for real (5.84 ERA in NLDS, 4.83 in 15 games prior to 2016) and he also missed several months of the regular season with a back injury. If he can't turn things around in the NLCS or if he only gets in a couple games, that would be a huge boost for the Cubs.

Of course, there could be some regression to the mean for baseball's best offense regardless of who's pitching. Only the Texas Rangers posted a worse team OPS in the postseason through the NLDS and they got swept by the Toronto Blue Jays in the ALDS.

The Cubs offense is a sleeping giant and that Game 4 comeback could be the trigger.

The Cubs will never go with a set lineup, but it's time to accept the reality of this offense

The Cubs will never go with a set lineup, but it's time to accept the reality of this offense

There is no quick fix for what ails the Cubs offense.

Manny Machado would certainly help. That much is certain.

But dropping one of the game's elite hitters into any lineup would help boost that team's offensive profile. The only question is: Would the long-term cost be worth it for a short-term gain?

Because Machado wouldn't cure everything with this Jekyll and Hyde Cubs offense.

After hammering Reds pitching in Cincinnati last weekend, the Cubs managed to score just 1 run against the Indians in 18 innings and they didn't even have to face Corey Kluber or Carlos Carrasco.

They went a combined 1-for-17 with runners in scoring position.

It was also the 42nd different lineup the Cubs have rolled out this season in 46 games.

That's been a point of contention for many, many fans wishing Joe Maddon would stick with one set lineup from 1-through-8 in the order. 

But that will never happen. 

For starters, this way does work. The 2016 Cubs boasted 130 different lineups throughout the course of the season and we all know how that year finished.

A set lineup also won't work because this isn't 1970 and some players are better than others for different matchups against opposing starting pitchers (like Albert Almora Jr. vs. left-handed pitchers and Jason Heyward vs. right-handed pitcher). Also, players need rest to ensure they'll be fresh for the stretch run in August and September and the postseason after that.

"It's such a non-sophisticated conversation," Maddon said. "I don't know how it begins. I've heard it from old baseball dudes — I think fathers pass it down to sons on occasion. It's like teaching your kid how to drive a stick shift; it just gets passed along.

"I try not to comment on it, because really, it's such a poor discussion. There's no sophistication to it whatsoever. It makes zero sense. It doesn't belong in today's game and actually it never belonged in anybody's game."

So what can the Cubs do to find more consistency on offense?

Honestly, not much beyond just continuing to develop. Remember, this is still a very, very young and inexperienced core of position players and growing pains are inevitable.

It's also the nature of the game right now with strikeouts way up and basehits down. 

Offense is naturally an ebb-and-flow, up-and-down kind of thing. Words like "feel" and "confidence" are thrown around so often because they matter.

But with the way baseball has gone, the peaks and valleys have become as prevalent as ever. Try to point to other teams right now that have had no trouble scoring runs on a consistent basis this season.

The Yankees are close, but that's one team. The Braves and Red Sox are the next two closest, but they're not without flaws.

Atlanta has scored just 3 runs in their last 3 games as they dropped a series to Jake Arrieta and the Phillies this week. The Red Sox haven't score more than 6 runs in a game since April 30.

It may seem like the Cubs are on a roller coaster all on their own, but that may just be because of HOW they go through valleys. 

The Cubs still struggle with runners in scoring position, ranking 26th in baseball in that area (.222 AVG). They rank 24th with runners in scoring position and 2 outs (.194 AVG).

But delve deeper and you'll see the Cubs actually rank near the top of baseball in RUNS in such situations. 

With guys in scoring position, they sit 5th in MLB wiith 168 runs. With guys in scoring position and 2 outs, they rank 6th in runs, ahead of the Yankees.

So they're giving themselves plenty of opportunity by getting guys on base and in scoring position often.

Another elite hitter would help things, sure. You could say that for any team in baseball.

But the simple fact of the matter is the Cubs are 4th in MLB in runs scored, 2nd in OBP, 3rd in OPS and 5th in SLG.

They do feast on poor teams and have trouble scoring against better opponents, but every team has that issue to some degree.

Getting Anthony Rizzo — whose 2018 OPS (.661) is almost 200 points below his career mark (.842) — back to his standard MVP-candidate level would certainly help matters, too.

The Cubs are on the right path — trying to use the whole field, hit the ball on a line more, make more contact — but it's not something that will become consistent parts of their respective offensive profiles overnight.

Maddon was actually OK with where his team was at before being shut out Wednesday night.

"I think a lot of guys are doing pretty well right now," Maddon said ahead of the Cubs' 1-0 loss. "...Overall, I kinda like what I'm seeing on the offensive side. I just think that OK, are we doing a better job of not chasing? I think so.

"Are we utilizing the opposite gap a little better? I think so. Strikeouts, I don't think anybody's overtly striking out too much right now. So I kinda like what we're doing with the bats. I kinda do. ... I think a lot of guys are starting to get it."

But there is still one area Maddon will never be satisfied with — getting runners home from third base with less than 2 outs.

"Of course," Maddon laughed, "I'm gonna talk about that for the next 10 years and I'm not gonna like it, probably."

Theo Epstein on Manny Machado rumors: 'It's honestly something we're looking at and just rolling our eyes at'

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USA TODAY

Theo Epstein on Manny Machado rumors: 'It's honestly something we're looking at and just rolling our eyes at'

Despite the MLB trade deadline being two months away, rumors of the Cubs potentially acquiring Orioles' shortstop Manny Machado have intensifed recently. Regardless, Cubs president Theo Epstein made his point on the rumor frenzy quite clear Thursday.

"I can say with regards to this particular spasm of media frenzy, it is outrageously outsized when you compare it to the reality of the situation," Epstein said Thursday on 670 The Score.

Machado is having an unbelievable season with the Orioles, hitting .328 with 15 home runs and 43 RBIs entering Thursday. If traded, he would undoubtedly provide a boost to any ballclub, but that is a big "if."

Of course, the MLB season is not even two months old yet, which Epstein pointed out as being a big factor in the situation.

"It's May," he said. "We're still figuring out who we are as a team this year. We're still figuring out our place in the division.

"There's an atypical amount of trade discussion in May this year, which is essentially nil."

Rumors of the Cubs being a potential player in acquiring Machado make sense. At 15-34, the Orioles have the worst winning percentage (.306) in the MLB. With their current positioning, trading Machado could start a rebuild that the Orioles might just need. The Cubs have a 24-year-old shortstop in Addison Russell that the Orioles could acquire to a) replace Machado and b) use as the face of their rebuild.

Be that as it may, Epstein said the rumors are something that the Cubs are "just rolling our eyes at."

"I understand it's natural for people to connect the dots and there to be this kind of frenzy from time to time, but it's honestly something we're looking at and just rolling our eyes at," he said. "It's not like July, where every now and then there's lots of coverage on deals that are actually being discussed or actually might happen.

"This one is just out there in fantasy land at this point."